From a fast food buffet to a feud with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the president only moved farther from a shutdown solution.
President Donald Trump met with a group of House lawmakers on Wednesday to talk about ending the month-long government shutdown. But he was more focused on the two people who weren’t in the room: Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.
“I don’t see how we’re going to come to a deal” without them, Trump told the mostly junior lawmakers gathered in the White House Situation Room. By then it had already been more than a week since the president had spoken with Pelosi, the House speaker, and Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader.
But Trump said he wasn’t in a hurry.
“I’ll wait them out,” he confided, according to a person present for the remarks.
Things looked bleak. And then they got even worse.
As the meeting unfolded, White House aides were still digesting a surprise letter from Pelosi requesting that Trump postpone the State of the Union address. After going over several options with his chief of staff in the presidential limousine en route to the Pentagon on Thursday afternoon, Trump retaliated by abruptly barring Pelosi and fellow Democrats from using military aircraft for a planned trip to Afghanistan. Stunned Democrats accused him of breaching protocol and even putting their safety at risk.
For all the drama, spectacle and public declarations, neither side budged from its negotiating position. Rather than pulling Trump and the Democrats closer to a resolution, the shutdown only seems to be pushing them farther apart.
“There’s a sense of the theater of the absurd,” said an exasperated Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia.
“We will most likely have a trade deal with China before this government reopens,” a former White House official said. “There is not an identified pathway forward and both sides are entrenched. The mood is not good.”
This account of the grim run-up to the shutdown’s one-month mark is based on interviews with more than a dozen White House officials, Trump allies, congressional aides and lawmakers. It shows how Trump’s ploy to excite his conservative base and keep his most sacred campaign promise — “build the wall” — has created a slow-motion crisis with no end in sight.
Meanwhile, some 800,000 federal workers will soon have gone a month without a paycheck. (Nine of 15 federal departments and dozens of agencies are shuttered.) Some are growing desperate, turning to part-time work and seeking financial help from friends and family.
They, along with Washington Democrats, will be watching to see what Trump says in an announcement he will make on Saturday afternoon “concerning the Humanitarian Crisis on our Southern Border, and the Shutdown,” as the president put it on Twitter.
The week began on a celebratory note for Trump, who hosted Clemson’s national champion football team for a Monday night dinner at the White House.
But even that ceremonial event was tangled in Washington’s political impasse.
Trump, an avowed fast-food lover, appeared delighted with himself. He beamed under a stoic portrait of Abraham Lincoln and repeatedly reminded reporters that he had paid for the spread of hamburgers, french fries and pizza out of his own pocket.
“The reason we did this is because of the shutdown,” Trump said.
The week ended on a much darker note. After Trump canceled Pelosi’s travel plans to Afghanistan — publicly revealing the previously secret trip — a top Pelosi lieutenant accused the Trump administration of leaking news that her delegation planned to salvage their trip by flying commercial. The Pelosi aide said the move threatened lawmakers’ security. The White House quickly punched back, calling the allegation a “flat out lie.”
All the while, federal workers weren’t getting a paycheck.
“It has not been a proud week for anybody,” a former senior White House official said.
Trump’s cancellation of Pelosi’s plane — announced in a White House letter seen by reporters before most Democrats — was all the more dramatic coming as it did after an unusual 24 hours of silence following her letter urging him to postpone the State of the Union.
The White House argued it canceled the trip to ensure that Pelosi and other top Democrats remained in Washington to negotiate a deal to end the shutdown. But the move doesn’t appear to have kept Pelosi in town. She was spotted boarding a plane to San Francisco on Friday afternoon, according to a person who saw her.
Conservatives cackled with glee when Trump nixed the Afghanistan trip. (“You’re Grounded,” blared the front page of the New York Post, over an image of Trump pointing at his Democratic nemesis.)
But some people close to the president worried that he appeared more concerned with scoring political points than reopening the government. They placed blame on acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who has endeared himself to the president by declining to check — and sometimes encouraging — his impulses.
“In the end, it looked childish and petty and stupid,” another former White House official said.
The White House declined to comment on the record for this story.
Mulvaney is among the advisers egging Trump on to keep up the fight for the border wall and he was among the handful of White House aides who laid plans for canceling Pelosi’s Afghanistan trip.
During Thursday’s presidential motorcade to the Pentagon, where Trump delivered a speech on missile defense, Mulvaney presented the president with several options for responding to Pelosi’s letter — including cancelling her congressional delegation’s overseas trip, according to a person familiar with the discussion.
Some people close to the president saw a missed opportunity: They argued that Trump could have claimed higher ground by allowing Pelosi and her colleagues to travel, then blasting them for leaving the country during the shutdown.
Others said that rather than send Pelosi a sarcastic personal letter saying she could fly to Afghanistan commercially, Trump might have allowed the Pentagon to release a more clinical statement, possibly avoiding the appearance that Trump was settling a personal score.
As the shutdown drags on, some White House aides are eager for a resolution and hope that Trump will compromise on his demand for more than $5 billion for the wall. Although some see hopeful signs in polling data, the overall picture it paints shows a president losing ground against Democrats.
Many of Trump’s outside advisers are counseling him against wavering, however, including some of the conservative talk radio hosts who visited Trump in the White House on Thursday. Among them was Sebastian Gorka, a bellicose former Trump White House adviser who was forced out in 2017, and who told Fox News last month that Trump is “never going to give up.”
“The president’s brand is to fight — that’s his brand,” said Matt Schlapp, a Trump ally and chairman of the American Conservative Union.
In the fourth week of a shutdown that began on December 22, White House aides are feeling a personal toll from that fight. Top officials deemed “essential” report a growing sense of burnout, as they pick up slack from the roughly two-thirds of their colleagues who have been furloughed.
“They are operating on a shoestring, with a bunch of folks at home. The support is gone,” said one former administration official. “And the White House was already stretched staff-wise before the shutdown.”
In private, there are hints that Trump has doubts about his militant position. He has complained about negative press coverage in recent days, according to people who have spoken to him. And his 2020 campaign aides are growing alarmed about the effect the shutdown could have on his re-election campaign.
But there is little sign of motion: As of Friday night there were no plans for new meetings between Trump and Democratic leaders, who aren’t very eager to talk to the president either. Democrats say they don’t trust Trump to stick to his word.
Some White House aides, worried that the negotiations have reached a stalemate, have already begun making preparations for the shutdown to stretch into February, for at least two more weeks beyond the State of the Union address, according to a senior administration official.
Inside the White House, some Trump officials are focused on what they call a potential turning point. It begins on Tuesday, when thousands of federal workers will miss another paycheck. White House aides believe that unions and labor groups will begin to crank up pressure on Democrats to make a deal, even if it means moving toward Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to fund a barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.
A former Trump adviser who remains close to the White House said Trump should target vulnerable Democrats by holding campaign rallies and urging voters to call members of Congress to push them to negotiate. “Any blue dogs or Democrats in states he won seem logical,” the person said.
Senior Trump officials believe such pressure could force some Democrats to distance themselves from Pelosi’s refusal to allocate a dollar for a border wall, which she calls “immoral.” Aides have compiled a list of potential targets, including centrist Democrats, those representing districts Trump won handily in 2016, and the 15 Democrats who voted against Pelosi as speaker.
It’s a longshot strategy, to say the least: So far, the White House’s efforts to woo moderates have failed. Democrats didn’t show up to a Tuesday meeting at the White House, and a similar meeting on Wednesday, which included Democratic members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, failed to result in a breakthrough.
Democrats meanwhile, see a president only destined to get weaker: While much of Washington was focused on the shutdown theatrics, BuzzFeed News published an explosive story alleging that Trump directed his lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about discussions to build a Trump Tower in Moscow — a revelation that, if confirmed, could form the basis for his impeachment by House Democrats.
Trump’s desire to declare a national emergency has cooled in recent days within the West Wing. Some White House aides fear the move could set a poor precedent for future presidents including Democrats, who could use such a maneuver declare a national emergency for gun control or climate change.
“It’s like the Senate and the nuclear option. Once you do it, there is no turning back,” said one Republican close to the White House.
Trump himself has often seemed unmoved by stories of the plight of federal workers, many of whom he has dismissed publicly and privately as Democrats.
”All these people are talking about how federal employees aren’t being paid — well, most of them are Democrats,” he said during Wednesday’s meeting with House lawmakers, according to the person who there, though, paradoxically, he also later insisted, “A lot of the people who aren’t being paid, they support me.”